At times we think we know ourselves in time when all we know is a sequence of
- Gaston Bachelard
Stone longs a millennially broad rhythm stretched toward immobility upon the presence of the human. But within stone's experience, human brevity endures less than instantly blinked past. Imagine then, the blindsiding velocity of stone's sudden metamorphosis into sculpture. And further still, imagine how that speed demonstrates the potential quantum acuity of human insight into stone's internal trajectories.
But, even the most ordinary of rocks, casually relaxed at home, not even dressed up to go out, skim the uncanny. Stones defy continually their customary assignment to a regard as inert objects. Weighing, persisting, they stay -- bodies like ours with evident memories and obscure teleologies, haunting in their inaudible longevity. Left alone to their own devices, stones are already difficult enough to dismiss.
Nicholas wasn’t an inyanga or anything, but he did pay homage to the natural environment.
- M. Scott Johnson
The enigmatic numinosity of stone, when humanly inhabited as sculpture imbues itself with the curvatures and indentations of a carver's own life force. Voraciously consuming and retaining active time, stone graphically recounts the rhythms of its transformative scarifications, and touched in this way, it entrains with the human: there can be no question that somebody has been here.
Images are created through a cooperation of the real and the unreal. …An image is not memory but something that emerges new. …(and) stands out with as much surprise as life -- so that life cannot explain it. …In art important successes happen independently of skill.
- Gaston Bachelard
Life is recognized less through its regularities than its divergences. Sound resonates as rich, full and alive to the human ear only when a significant proportion of chaos and disorder is frequenting its constituent wave patterns. To synchronize with another's rhythms is also inseparably to engage dialogues embedded in mutual unpredictability. Personal identity likewise emerges more out of distinct limitations and deviations than through any achievements of homogeneity.
Each self generates specific topography -- particular convergences of unique experience, disposition, wisdom and skill effected in signature conglomerations of rhythms. While generic human intervention with stone may be as clearly marked by an engineer's 180 degree cut as by the most unimaginative and conventional of carving, what arrests in subtractive sculpture traces the situating peculiarities of an irreplicable individual. The individual artist, the performing locus of feeling and shadow perception, contributes to an art entity its complex human irregularity, the cross rhythms that indicate living activity and invite participative empathy.
The individual has been contested as an "ideological mirage" in some Western critiques of its Enlightenment models of the rational subject and the Romantic point to point conduit metaphor of self expression. A common default recourse in the arts has settled into the anonymities of convention, as in Andy Warhol's influential collapsing of the personal into branding logo. But African Americans have also gleaned an inside perspective on individual effacement in their having been treated to the cutting edge of Enlightenment modernism as disposable property. And besides, there are already multiple interbreeding conceptions of individual personhood active in the North American meme pool, Indigenous, African, European and more. The ethics of African pluralism undergird the symbiotic interchange of individual and community as enacted in the ring shout, the jazz ensemble, or on the dance floor or basketball court.
From an African perspective, once you have brought a structure to bear on your
- John Miller Chernoff
The aged, resistant structures of stone tutor insight and patience, cooling the mind into modes of awareness proper to the nature of stone's breadth and perspective. Dialogical, call and response working methods designate that there really is no way to excise a carver's distinct performing topography from the interchange. In art, what's called "self" is not really so much expressed as incidentally exposed as a part of the process; and the extent to which a carver absents oneself would also be the degree to which a sculpture's potential compassion for the human depletes.
All of this just begins to circle around why M. Scott Johnson's sculptures are so able to get under one's skin with such staying power. They're human scaled toward conversant accessibility, often at the dimension of a bust, compatible with the intimacy of a family circle. They're scaled at a proportion congenial to empathic body to body matching, to imaginative projection of the vocabulary of one's own body sense into the place of the sculptural body, to trying on a sculptural body-double for size.
The range of surface textures, the radical, highly charged negative spaces, the shape shifting plays of shadow, and the proprioceptive recalibrations of balance, weight and tendency together articulate a dynamic of internal body states. The sculptures are inhabitable portraits of what's going on under the skin.
This lucidity and eloquence in the "elementary representational tools of the sensory and motor systems" leverage what's customarily, and dubiously, referred to as the "abstract" in visual art. The visually non-representational in art deflects attention away from the instinctive cognitive reflex to formulate whatever's seen as denotative imagery into the invisible, somatosensory arenas of feeling; but facile distinctions between visually "abstract" and "representational" are not quite so simple.
Upon hearing a quip declaring that it's impossible to paint a face in today's world, Willem de Kooning once responded, "That's right. And it's impossible not to." Many of M. Scott Johnson's sculptures careen in, out and between the non-objective and the figurative, and many directly address the archetypal motif of the human face. But there's something else going on beyond depiction, distortion or abstraction of a feature's appearance.
From inside one's own face, face is experienced as more than the visual image observed by other people. It resonates as a fluctuating tactile field of emotionally informed proprioceptive tensions. This experienced template of face, in being mapped across the gravitational displacements of the sculptural body, enriches and intensifies the asymmetries and correspondences vibrating in such works as The Mind of Benjamin Banneker or High John (The Conqueror), where the facial motif pivots a reference wave among the multiple rhythmic interference waves of Johnson's virtuoso carving.
It's notable that an artist of Johnson's generation, more than eight decades younger than the last important carvers in the West would gravitate to one of the oldest of art forms. His adoption of subtractive sculpture is neither Luddite nor a withering retrenchment into traditionalism, but a choice fully informed by the current prevailing tendencies and conditions in contemporary art.
And what are significant are the concerns that motivate such a focus. They suggest that, concurrent with a starry eyed cyborgian lunge toward an imagined posthuman, there's a wealth of unfinished business and open possibilities yet to be navigated within the actually present, untranscended human. It's intriguing that, while technocrats long to tether conceptions of human mind and sensibility to models of high speed, mechanized computation, the most advanced cognitive science is finding the most abstract and sophisticated of mental accomplishments to be metaphorical extensions of the most basic of body experiences.
It's tempting for a superficial viewer to mistake an African American's deliberate incorporation of continental African conceptions (and Johnson's actual palette of influences are as global as anybody's) as merely "ethnic", if not neo-primitive. At the same time, it's rare that de Kooning's putative blondes, Jasper Johns' flags, or Tintoretto portrayals of a swarthy, Hebraic Jesus as a handsome northern Italian are cited as "ethnic". Anything presently available as "past", all shifts in context aside, hasn't really passed, but persists as a current resource; All and any art unavoidably acknowledges while transforming where it comes from.
There are always boundary crossers, and aesthetics fail to neatly match ethnicity. Cultural memes travel farther and faster, recombining and mutating in ways that people can't even consider. A person born into a particular aesthetic and social context still has to earn it in order to live it. There are plenty of black people who feel no affinity at all for Pan-African conceptualizations and sense no obligation to feel otherwise, while many of Asian or European parentage can neither live nor maintain their identities without them. The reciprocals of any of these possible combinations are equally active. Sometimes the sprit finds you. Sometimes affinities lead a person far from one's point of origin, as Johnson memorably learned in Zimbabwe.
Aesthetic profiling imposes issues of political dominance and uneven access to resources over the actual fertility of artistic concepts involved. The point is that among the rich and deep cultural constellations available to any artist, the vital tipping points are not hierarchical status, but distinctness and appropriateness to one's values, preoccupations and visions. M. Scott Johnson, a contemporary 21st century American sculptor, simply acknowledges explicitly the persistent relevance of Afrological conceptual possibilities within a much more intricate and unpredictably evolving worldscape.
But, to take it a step further, a peruse of continental African sculpture best exposes just how unlike this referential field Johnson’s sculpture actually is. However, it’s not really necessary to travel all that far. The extremes of invention within a single sculpture, such as The Tao of Physics, or an assessment of the variety among the sculptures in this book should themselves testify to the recurring freshness of Johnson’s engagement and imagination.
M. Scott Johnson's formal and procedural choices derive far less from art about art concerns than in working out the implications of an evolving life conception. In a highly accelerated, information dense cultural environment, Johnson considers resilient alternatives to fragmentation and egoistic nihilism by allying himself with the pluralistic Pan-African disposition toward integrated, polymundial interface. Multiple rhythm -- and with that, dance, feeling and somatosensory resources -- persists as a vehicle coherent and supple enough to achieve a working congruence amid disparity.
Out of a willingness to incorporate the complications of thinking and acting in terms of wholes, M. Scott Johnson enacts an intelligence that minimizes the potential violences of intellectual abstraction, and his reciprocal relationship with the unique intelligence of each stone affords him exacting technique without an imposition of command and control attitudes and methodologies. His art succeeds both as imaginative, powerfully engaging sculpture and as an affirmation of a potential way of being. In this way and more, M. Scott Johnson's sculptures demonstrate the possibility of harmonizing with all the beats.
In physics, by the way, shadow matter names what stuffs an implied concurrent, interpenetrating, invisible universe, parallel in correspondence with the one we think we’re in.